Prodigious Contest In Prospect

The two greatest chess prodigies of the age will soon face each other

Chess
Calm, self-assured: Sergey Karjakin (

Galiya Kamalova CC BY-SA 3.0)

The two greatest chess prodigies of the modern age are Magnus Carlsen and Sergey Karjakin. These two men — both born in 1990 — will now contest a match for the world championship. By winning a final eliminating tournament in Moscow at the end of March, Karjakin has earned the right to challenge the Norwegian in New York in November.

At least, New York is where FIDE, world chess’s governing body, has long said the match will be held. But late last year the US government put FIDE’s Moscow-backed president, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, on a sanctions list for alleged business ties with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. Even assuming FIDE’s president can get a visa to the US, he could find opening the match in New York difficult if he is simultaneously grabbed by the Feds.

Karjakin, of course, is an innocent chess player, though even this likeable man has become slightly controversial in the fraught context of President Putin’s military adventurism. Born in the Crimean capital Simferopol, Karjakin revoked his Ukrainian citizenship for a Russian passport in 2009 and left for Moscow. This was not itself a political decision but a careerist one: Karjakin had become infuriated by the absence of any sponsorship from the Ukrainian chess federation and the Russians made it clear they could do much more for him.

When five years later Putin sent troops into Crimea, Karjakin expressed delight. He posted a picture of himself on Instagram wearing a T-shirt with Putin’s image and the legend “We don’t leave our guys behind.” And Karjakin said of Putin: “I absolutely support him in everything he does.”

This caused a breach in his formerly very close relationship with Ruslan Ponomariov, the Ukrainian who won the FIDE world title in January 2002. That year, at the extraordinary age of 12, Karjakin had become the youngest person ever to achieve the grandmaster title. But he was just 11 when Ponomariov, stunned by the boy’s calculating abilities, had invited him to be his training partner for the world championship match — “in charge of tactics”.

Now Ponomariov has called for Russian chess players who supported the annexation of Crimea to be sanctioned, while Karjakin says of his mentor: “To my great dismay, he took precisely the opposite decision I took. But of course, if he shows good sense, I am always prepared to speak to him.”

All this will be of no concern to Magnus Carlsen, as he seeks to defend his title successfully for the second time. On performance ratings, he is the clear favourite: he is still number one by a large margin, while Karjakin is world-ranked eighth. But Carlsen actually tipped Karjakin to win through to this match rather than the more highly-ranked Americans, Hikaru Nakamura and Fabiano Caruana; he said he had the greatest respect for the Russian’s “defensive abilities and resilience”. Those particular skills will stand Karjakin in excellent stead in a world championship match.

Above all, Karjakin seems a nerveless competitor — as he proved when winning the Chess World Cup last year, coming back from two games down in the final. I first met him when he was 12 — I helped arrange an event in London when the boy took on no fewer than 72 British players in a simultaneous display lasting more than six hours; even then, his calm self-assurance was striking.

This, more than anything else, was the key to his victory in the Moscow eliminator event. In the final round he found himself up against  Caruana, with the American (world-ranked number three) on the same score in joint first place, but needing a win because Karjakin had a superior tie-break. In their lifetime score in classical chess, Caruana led by four wins to one. But none of those encounters had even a fraction of this one’s significance.

I felt nervous just watching the live feed of this game, and so marvelled at Karjakin’s appearance of complete calmness; while Caruana — who admittedly had much the harder task in having to win — seemed to be quivering with tension. The American played a great game almost up to the time control at move 40; but just before that, when more time is added to the players’ allowance, Caruana made a fatal error, allowing a devastating Rook sacrifice.

Even then, Karjakin showed no excitement. He steadied himself, thought for a minute — and then, in a very deliberate fashion, reached out his hand for the move he knew meant he had won the right to a world title match which he said he’d been working for “since I was six”.

Here is that memorable game: 1.e4 c5 (Caruana very rarely plays this, the Sicilian defence. But there is nothing better if you have to win with Black) 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 d6 6.Bg5 e6 7.Qd2 a6 8.0-0-0 Bd7 9.f4 h6 10.Bh4 b5 11.Bxf6 gxf6 (Caruana gets what he needs: a highly double-edged position, where he has the two bishops and central pawn mass to compensate for his weakened K-side) 12.f5 Qb6 13.fxe6 fxe6 14.Nxc6 Qxc6 15.Bd3 h5 16.Kb1 b4 17.Ne2 Qc5 18.Rhf1 Bh6 19.Qe1 a5!? (A bold pawn sacrifice. If Karjakin plays 20.Rxf6 Black will put his Queen on e5, his Bishop on g7 and fire down the now open diagonal towards White’s King) 20.b3 (an odd-looking move, but Karjakin’s idea is to establish his Bishop on c4) Rg8 21.g3 Ke7 22.Bc4 Be3 23.Rf3 Rg4 24.Qf1 Rf8 25.Nf4 Bxf4 26.Rxf4 a4 27.bxa4 (Most surprising, but Karjakin now wants the b3 square for his Bishop) Bxa4 28.Qd3 Bc6 29.Bb3 Rg5 30.e5! (This pawn sacrifice is a highly practical decision, opening lines towards Caruana’s King) Rxe5 31. Rc4 Rd5 32.Qe2 Qb6 33.Rh4 Re5 34.Qd3 Bg2 35.Rd4 d5 36.Qd2 Re4? (Under the extreme pressure of needing to win, and very short of time, Caruana blunders. After 36…Be4 37.Rxb4 Qc7 the position would be roughly equal) 37.Rxd5!! (Caruana said afterwards he had seen this Rook sacrifice but underestimated its force) exd5 38.Qxd5 Qc7 39.Qf5! (Very precise. This threatens Qh7+ and, unlike 39.Qxh5, doesn’t allow Black the partial defence of 39…Re6) Rf7? (Black’s best try was 39…Qc6 but after 40.Qh7+ Ke8 41.Qxh5+ Ke7 42.Bd5! is devastating) 40.Bxf7 Qe5 (If 40…Kxf7 41.Qh7+ wins the Black Queen) 41.Rd7+ Kf8 42.Rd8+! At this, Caruana — rather than endure 42…Kxf7 43.Qh7+ Ke6 44.Qd7 checkmate — extended his hand in resignation. The spectators in the playing hall in Moscow stood as one to cheer their hero.